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After 30 Years, First Klezmer Festival Founder Says ‘Mission Accomplished’

Thirty years ago, klezmer music was a dying art, played mostly by aging musicians at the occasional wedding or bar mitzvah. That started changing in the late 1970s with the klezmer revival, and especially with KlezKamp, one of the first klezmer festivals and a training ground for new artists.

Now, KlezKamp, the annual festival of Yiddish folk arts, will hold its 30th and final gathering from December 23 to December 29 in Kerhonkson, New York. Henry Sapoznik, founder and director of the festival, said the decision to cease operations was made because the mission of jump-starting a Yiddish cultural movement has been achieved.

“I started this thing. I ran it for 30 years. Others are doing it now, and it’s time to do work that no one else is doing,” Sapoznik said in an interview from his home in Olive Branch, New York.

That work involves a shift in focus to “the Midwest and beyond,” he said. Sapoznik has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison since 2009. In 2011 the university established the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture with a $1 million donation by KlezKamp’s associate director, Sherry Mayrent, and her wife, Carol Master.

In the announcement of the decision to end KlezKamp, Sapoznik said he plans to bring Yiddish culture to new venues, campuses and communities nationwide.

KlezKamp is partly a victim of its own success. There are now many klezmer festivals around the world, inspired by KlezKamp. These include gatherings like KlezCalifornia, in the San Francisco Bay area; the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, and KlezKanada in Lantier, Quebec, which sells out regularly and offers scores of scholarships. That summer event has hired many of KlezKamp’s instructors.

Sapoznik started KlezKamp in 1985 while employed as a sound archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The festival was initially a project of YIVO, from its founding until 1993. Since its early days, KlezKamp has been a gathering of the klezmer tribes and has featured a who’s who of the klezmer scene.

Old-timers like Max Epstein, Sidney Beckerman and Leon Schwartz graced the weeklong immersions into Yiddish culture. KlezKamp always ran through Christmas Day, and in addition to instrument instruction, there were workshops on Yiddish language, cooking and visual arts.

Sapoznik’s fondest KlezKamp memories include joining the New York University professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett onstage for interviews with their respective parents; singing Christmas carols in Yiddish in the halls of the Paramount Hotel, and joining in a faculty jam with a couple of the “old guys”: Pete Sokolow and Sidney Beckerman, son of the great klezmer clarinetist Shloimke Beckerman.

“Sid put the clarinet up to his lips, and for the next hour it was this unbelievable stream of consciousness through his repertoire” Sapoznik recalled. “A solid hour of Sid blowing one bulgar [dance piece] after another. It was just astounding.”

Those klezmer jams and instruction by leading musicians inspired generations of newcomers to the music. One of them was clarinetist Michael Winograd, who first went to KlezKamp when he was 13.

“Look at him now,” said artist Tine Kindermann, who has taught a youth theater workshop at KlezKamp and is married to Frank London, trumpet player for The Klezmatics. “We now have a whole new generation of musicians who started out as children and teenagers at KlezKamp and are now traveling the world, playing music that is taking the tradition in a whole new direction, while remaining truthful to its roots.”

Another KlezKamp alumnus who started as a child is Sarah Mina Gordon, daughter of the late Yiddish vocalist Adrienne Cooper. Gordon is a singer in Yiddish Princess, which bills itself as “The World’s Favorite Yiddish Rock Band.” Winograd is also a member.

Hankus Netsky, founder of the Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band and a faculty member of both KlezKamp and KlezKanada, credits KlezKamp with having a major hand in Yiddish culture’s revival and proliferation.

“When KlezKamp started in 1985, who could have imagined that tens of thousands of tourists and music lovers would take to the streets of Krakow to celebrate a week of Jewish music featuring hundreds of internationally renowned performers?” Netsky told the Forward. “Henry should be celebrated for stepping up to the plate at a time when there were really very few opportunities to interact with the remaining artistic masters of a culture that had been marginalized in the mainstream Jewish world.” Sapoznik estimates that 20,000 people have attended KlezKamp over the years.

“KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile,” the 61-year-old academic said. “For many years the only game in town was KlezKamp. It was the only way that people were going to experience the culture firsthand in a historical context.”

In addition to running mini, one-day KlezKamp-like events around the United States, Sapoznik and colleagues at the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture will be digitizing a huge body of audio and video recordings made at KlezKamp over the past 30 years and streaming them online, along with Mayrent’s collection of Yiddish 78-RPM records. The website for this material will be up by the time the final KlezKamp opens, in December.

Jon Kalish covered the first KlezKamp, in 1985. For more, visit his blog, Kalish Labs

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